UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The Sky typically end practice with a huddle.
“ ‘Together’ on three, ‘family’ on six,” Azura Stevens will say before they break to work on individual shooting drills and seek treatment with the training staff.
On Saturday, coach/general manager James Wade had a different idea for the conclusion of the Sky’s practice in Connecticut ahead of Game 3 against the Sun on Sunday — dodgeball. As the colorful foam balls were placed across the center of the gym, players lined up on one side, and the coaching staff lined up on the other.
A whistle blew, and the battle ensued.
“I let them win to build their confidence,” Wade said, laughing. “Tonya [Edwards] was the only one of us left standing at the end.”
Wade’s intention was to create some competition without the pressure that’s attached to the semifinals and contending for back-to-back WNBA titles.
The thing about the Sky, though, is they thrive under pressure. Whether they enjoy those back-against-the-wall situations, they have hit new levels when forced into them.
In Uncasville for the next two games of the series, the Sky are intent on not putting themselves back in an elimination game.
“Before we left for this trip, [Candace Parker] told me, ‘You need to do whatever it takes to get to that place because you can make plays that get us to the Finals,’ ” Kahleah Copper said.
As important as their tactical approach is against the Sun, their mental approach is even more important at this stage of the year, and the Sky’s veterans know that.
Wade’s starting lineup averages 11.2 years of WNBA experience. Parker, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley have 12 or more years each. The focus it takes to be prepared to execute is something those three talk about, but they prefer to lead by example.
Parker has made three Finals appearances and won two rings; Quigley and Vandersloot have made two and won one. Last year, the Sky relied heavily on Parker’s experience winning a championship with the Sparks in 2016. She had the blueprint.
This year, the Sky’s shared championship experience has provided an advantage in elimination games.
The Sky would have preferred to enter Mohegan Sun with a 2-0 series lead. But with the series tied at a game apiece, their mentality is as steady as it has been all season.
There’s a reason the Sky went 35 games without losing two in a row, and it has more to do with their mental approach than anything else. Their ability to lock in on adjustments and execute with their repeat title hopes on the line is the sum of maturity, confidence and talent.
“That’s the reason why some talented players don’t win at a high level,” Wade said. “They play well, but when it comes to playoffs, the mental approach sets the legends apart from the really good players.”
One of the qualities that makes the Sun so dangerous is their postseason mentality.
Curt Miller’s team sees its championship window closing, and the players have been very vocal about how that’s motivating them. Excluding the 2020 bubble season, in which they played without Jonquel Jones, the Sun have finished in the league’s top three every year since 2019.
In the last two years, they were eliminated in the semifinals. In 2019, they lost to the Mystics in the Finals. That level of disappointment could be a significant catalyst for a championship run.
“Sky in four” chants were abundant during last year’s semifinals and Finals series after they stole both Game 1s on the road against the Sun and Mercury. This year, the Sky gave a hungry Sun team a chance to return the favor and close out the series in front of their home crowd.
Returning to the Finals will take the Sky’s sharpest mental game.
“There’s very little room for error,” Quigley said.